Time for Journalism’s ‘Name-and-Shame’ Game to End

I’ve never understood the point of the “name-and-shame” tactic employed by some journalists who feel aggrieved by what they perceive to be an undue amount of pitches from PR pros or just plain spam from PR agencies.Is it that they are trying to teach us a lesson? A Daddy (the media) knows best, and if we (the misbehaving children) know what is good for us, we’ll shape up quick before Dad comes home type of ethos?

Or is it fueled by a genuine desire to help the public relations industry better inform reporters of key trends and provide the sources they need to report on the world’s news?

My cynical side tells me it’s neither. Instead, it’s a good bit of self-righteous hand wringing aimed at embarrassing us into submission.

Latest among this latter scenario is AdAge columnist’s Bob Garfield’s scathing screed against a young PR professional in the LA area. I’ll refrain from publicly naming the PR pro in question, because I derive no joy from embarrassing a fellow professional who was likely doing what he was told by a boss, even if the instructions were bone-headed. But let’s just say the column left little to the imagination as to Mr. Garfield’s feelings about PR professionals: he’s not a fan.

And that’s unfortunate. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Ever since WIRED Editor Chris Anderson uncorked the journalist naming-and-shaming of PR pros meme in 2007, a subculture has emerged within journalism whereupon blaming PR pros for all that ails the business of journalism seems to be the cool thing to do. Never mind if you publicly embarrass someone whom you may not even know, dammit, they had the temerity to send you a pitch about a new e-reader when you cover business tech.

How dare they!

Now, before anyone starts writing a scathing rebuttal to this post, claiming that I don’t take these types of complaints seriously, let me set the record straight: I hate spray-and-pray pitching efforts. The spamming of the media is ridiculous and is a practice that must stop within PR.

Public relations is about establishing mutually-beneficial relationships with many stakeholders, the media included. Spamming a reporter does nothing to engender successful relationships with the media on behalf of one’s client. In many cases, it only serves to alienate those who we are trying to inform and influence.

And allow me to take this point a little further: as an advocate for the PR industry, through my work at PRSA, I understand the seriousness of this issue better than most. See my response in the comments section to Mr. Garfield’s AdAge column to get a sense of how PRSA feels about this issue and what we are doing to educate PR pros to eradicate the pernicious effects of spam pitching.

With all that said, I still have uneasy feelings about Mr. Garfield’s column and the broader media obsession with naming-and-shaming PR pros. Thankfully, not all feel the same as the former AdAge critic and “On the Media” co-host (who now writes a semi-regular column for AdAge and is listed as a consultant in his bio).

Commenter Stan Bratskeir had perhaps the most astute assessment of this issue, providing points I wish Mr. Garfield had considered before unleashing his vitriol against a young, aspiring PR pro. Here is Mr. Bratskeir’s superb comment:

It’s true that much irrelevant junk gets passed off as news by p.r. people. It’s also true that publicists are typically young and inexperienced, and measured by the number of reporters they contact and hits they generate.

At the same time, most reporters depend on p.r. people for story ideas and, then, for research and for access, so their relationship is always going to be necessary, if uneasy.

It’s also true that p.r. people who are careful about who they pitch, what they say and how they represent their clients take exception to being called flacks. Just as good reporters probably don’t like being called hacks.

Ahh, perspective. Just what this discussion needs. Unfortunately, Mr. Garfield’s column offered little of that. Which is a shame, because the headline for his commentary was promising: “One Strike and You’re Out: In Relationship Era, Bad PR Pitches Will not Be Tolerated.

Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to read his thoughts on what PR means in the “relationship era” than reading yet another column about why journalists just can’t stand those damn emails they receive from PR pros?

I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel to Mr. Garfield’s column to find out …

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  • I think the point of name-and-shame has always been pretty clear: it is employed as a deterrence, in the hope that calling attention to this kind of behavior — which is both endemic and broadly condemned in our industry — will put an end to it. Certainly, little else is working. My erstwhile colleagues in the press tell me that they’ll get as many as 200 pitches or other would-be stories that they have to process each day. It’s a wonder they get around to writing at all.

    Right now, the cost of spray-and-pray is essentially zero, especially for those who are new enough to PR that they don’t have reputations to compromise. What Bob and others who call out bad pitches have done is alter the cost-benefit calculation. If the higher the risk that a poorly targeted or amateurish pitch will be made public, the more pause it will give all of us before we hit “send.”

    The point about relationships that Bob didn’t express explicitly is not a
    secret: the tools through which we can build relationships with the
    press have never been more powerful, and I’ve never heard a journalism
    complain about a thoughtful email intended to further a discussion. But
    instead of using these tools to start a dialogue, we’re using them as a
    megaphone for one-way, often-uninvited broadcasting.

    I don’t like the shaming element, either, and I’ve certainly seen journalists make similar points without Google-bombing some young PR pro. But unless we can show that we’re policing ourselves better, outbursts like Bob’s will be a cost of doing business.

    • Stanley Brinnes

      It’s always been true that the two professions have a symbiotic relationship. But talk about “screeds!” What does Florentz accomplish here? Does he think his little rant is going to help him build good, solid relationships with journalists who might write about the company he is representing? Not so much. Good luck, fella.

  • Marisa Vallbona

    What I find interesting is that the news media will shame PR practitioners but what PR practitioners ever turn around and say a word about the news anchors or reporters who quietly pull us aside after doing a story and ask us for jobs? We are discreet and keep it in the vault. What about those who e-mail us in response to our pitches and ask us to keep an eye out because they love the news business but they’re not sure of where it’s going and they want a way out “just in case” ?

  • Christopher Florentz

    As a long-time PR practitioner, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and knowing many talented and ethical journalists. On the flip side, I’ve also had the experience of dealing with reporters who were obnoxious, arrogant, and singularly obsessed with getting the story, no matter what. Some of them played fast and loose with the facts, and even distorted words that I or a client clearly communicated to them. So, there’s more than enough blame to go around. Pointing fingers and naming names serves no constructive purpose. It may have therapeutic value, but it does nothing to enhance communication between PR practitioners and the press. Professionalism is a two-way street.